Acton, Boxborough to unite pre-K to 12

Residents in Acton and Boxborough voted last week to expand their regional school district into a pre-K to 12th grade system that officials say will save money, provide additional educational opportunities for students, and allow for more professional development.

Currently, Acton and Boxborough each have a pre-K to sixth grade district and are part of a regional district for seventh through 12th grade.

Officials will spend the next year setting up the district, which will become operational July 1, 2014.

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“I’m thrilled,’’ said Stephen Mills, who serves as the superintendent for the Acton and Acton-Boxborough Regional School District. “I absolutely think this is a wonderful opportunity the Acton and Boxborough voters seized.’’

Mills will stay on as superintendent of the expanded district.

The two towns held separate Special Town Meetings Tuesday to vote on the regional agreement.

The vote in Acton was 349 in favor of regionalization to 194 against; Boxborough voted 439 to to 195.

Maria Neyland, chairwoman of the Boxborough School Committee and vice chairwoman of the regional committee, said it was an emotional vote for residents who were worried about losing control of their small school and finances.

But Boxborough’s enrollment at Blanchard Memorial School has been steadily declining, making it more and more difficult to sustain its own school system, she said.

Last year, Boxborough had 477 students, but it is projected to have 378 by the 2016-17 school year.

“I really, truly believe this is the best thing for the future education of the elementary kids,’’ Neyland said. “It’s a big relief for Boxborough. Now we can really look at moving forward.’’

Neyland said officials spent about three years considering options to deal with the declining enrollment. If regionalization failed, officials would have looked to take in more students from outside the town.

Boxborough parent Molly Wong, the chairwoman of the Blanchard Parents, Teachers and Friends organization, described the vote as “bittersweet.’’

Wong said she initially opposed full regionalization but realized it was the best option for the students.

“It’s the direction we need to go in to be responsible, but it’s sad to give up the feeling that we have this small school,’’ Wong said.

One key provision of the agreement states that each town will have an elementary school, so Blanchard will continue operating. Students can choose to attend Blanchard or one of the five elementary schools in Acton.

Officials said it will be a busy year as they look to consolidate the three districts into one. Neyland said it involves combining everything from student records to school policies, contracts, and the budget. “It’s going to be a lot of work,’’ she said.

As part of that process, officials will be taking a look at duplicative services. Dennis Bruce, the chairman of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee, which will serve as the transitional committee until next year, said some positions will be eliminated.

The superintendent/principal job at Blanchard, for example, which is held by Curtis Bates, will be eliminated and a principal will be hired instead.

“We’ll be taking a hard look at the resources,’’ Bruce said.

Mills said officials will work on the transition this year and many parents will see immediate changes in the fall of 2014. By consolidating services, the cost of running the districts will go down by at least $1 million a year, he said.

Also, one of the biggest benefits of regionalization is the ability to share space and resources, Mills said. While Acton is tight on space, Mills said Boxborough has several empty classrooms that will now be used. That space will allow the district to offer more full-day kindergarten spots and special education services so students don’t have to move out of the district, he said.

Mills said Acton, for example, has a science and social studies curriculum specialist, but Boxborough does not. And, Boxborough has an English language arts specialist that Acton does not have. Now the two towns can share those specialists, he said.

The existing Boxborough and Acton school committees will be dissolved in July 2014. The new district will be governed by the regional school committee, which will have 11 members, seven from Acton and four from Boxborough. The committee will comprise the existing nine regional committee members plus one new member from each town. The new members will be elected next spring.